straydogA female collie mix, so beautiful, all gold and white and dirty; she’s in the last cage on the aisle, curled up quiet, watching everything – but when I get too close she goes completely crazy, biting at the bars, herself, anything in reach, until I back off and away. Her growl’s like ripping metal, jagged, dangerous, and strong . . . Don’t mess with me, that growl says. I may be in a cage but I can still bite.

Rachel is happiest when she’s volunteering at the animal shelter, especially after she meets the feral collie she names Grrl: they’re both angry and alone. When a teacher encourages her to write about the dog, Rachel finds another outlet for her pain and frustration. Writing about Grrl is easy. But teaching Grrl to trust her is a much tougher task. And when Griffin, the new boy in school, devises a plan to bring Grrl home, Rachel finds that the dog isn’t the only one who must learn to trust. Kathe Koja offers a raw and emotional tale about a girl who risks breaking out of her own cage to find the help she needs.

straydog is Kathe Koja’s compelling debut novel. Koja writes for young adults.

Writing straydog, my first book for young people, ushered me into a world I knew already as a reader. Many of the characters I love best in fiction — Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet, J.D. Salinger’s Holden and Franny and Zooey, Francesca Lia Block’s Witch Baby — are people who say what they think, show their bewilderments, struggle with hard ideas, love with all their hearts; exasperating, funny, intense people. Young people.

I’m a strong supporter of animal rights, so I’m especially proud that straydog was honored by both the ASPCA and the Humane Society. I believe that you can learn everything you need to know about a person by watching the way s/he acts with animals and little kids, the powerless ones.

Kathe Koja“So what’s up with that collie?”

Melissa’s at her desk, an old-fashioned school teacher’s desk, dented metal drawers and heaping piles of junk: fund-raising appeals, cruelty investigation forms, food orders, a busted leash tagged DON’T BUY THIS KIND!!! At the center of the heap is the brand-new computer, the one new thing in the place, a donation from some distributor. Now Melissa scrabbles like Shiva through the mess, hunting for “The pen,” she says to herself, “where is the pen ?” and then to me “What collie?” She gives me the major Melissa-stare, her wide blue eyes like What! do! you! want! Her hair’s really, really short and blonde, she gels it so it sticks up like porcupine quills. “You mean the one Jake brought in?”
“Yeah. Grrl.” It was what I called her, writing last night in my paper; it fit, it’s just right but “The feral one, you named her?” and she rolls her eyes. “Rachel, before you start, stop, all right? She’s been all her life on the streets, you know what they’re like when they’re –”

“I know, I know.” You can almost never socialize the feral ones, they’re almost always euthanized .I’ve seen dozens of dogs, and fallen in love with half of them, and cried my heart out when they died; that’s how it is here. But this one is different, somehow. There’s something about her, something in her eyes, I can’t stop thinking about her: as if I know what she’s like, know her from the inside out. And I have a plan for her, or at least the plan for a plan so “I just want to try,” I say to Melissa, “just get to know her a little. And it won’t interfere with my work schedule, I’ll still do all my regular stuff –” 

“I don’t have time — there you are! — to argue with you now,” she says, snatching up her pen. “Go away. Go talk to the dogs,” which I do, sweep and swab and water and feed, all the while sneaking little looks at Grrl in her cage lying on a blue blanket, one of the old torn-up blankets from the rescue van. Her eyes are half-closed, cloudy; the cage card says she’s got a fever from the leg infection. When I reach to put the card back she growls at me, that ripping, ugly sound: Don’t mess with me , that growl says. I may be in a cage but I can still bite.

So I start talking like I always do, to all the dogs — hey you guys, how’s it going — but once in awhile I say “Grrl”, looking into her eyes, making sure she knows it’s meant for her. “Grrl, Grrl,” almost like her growl but warm and crooning, the name and the idea came to me like a gift last night as I sat looking over the essay, two gifts at once because I’m going to write about that dog, I thought, about Grrl and from “A Dog’s Life” I changed the title to “straydog,” all one word, like a dog would think of herself.

And once I’d done that the words just, just flew, it was like I couldn’t write fast enough. It was like I knew her, knew how she would think and feel and fear, knew it all from the inside out and when I finally stopped writing — not done, only just started but my hand was hot and aching, and my eyes were as dry as little rubber balls — I felt so good, so full , I don’t know how else to explain it; like I’d eaten at a banquet, like I was a banquet. — Oh, that’s not it either, how can words say exactly what you want sometimes and sometimes nothing at all?

Winner of the Humane Society’s KIND Book Award
Winner of the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh Award
A BOOK SENSE 76 Top Ten Summer Teen Reads pick
A selection of the Junior Library Guild
A selection of the Children’s Literature Choice List for 2003

Kathe Koja website

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